Why are action movies ashamed to be action movies? It’s as if one day, Hollywood figured they could teach actors how to kick better than they could teach martial artists how to act, turning a legion of would-be dramatic leading men into shit-kickers. The era of Schwarzenegger, Stallone and Willis is over, replaced by the legion of Harry Potters and Percy Jacksons who can stand still as computer generated effects fly from their hands, or the Jason Bournes who can flail and wave their arms around as the camera shakes to create the illusion of violence. In that spirit, there is this weekend’s “Enemies Closer,” which twenty years ago would have starred Jean-Claude Van Damme. The good news is, he’s still in it. The bad news: the movie stars Tom Everett Scott.
“Enemies Closer” takes place on King’s Island, a lonely Canadian resort where Everett Scott’s Henry is the park ranger. He’s only one of two inhabitants on the entire isle, though that doesn’t stop Henry from enforcing justice, including forcing vacationers to surrender their booze in accordance with island rules. When a girl flirts with him, he remains uncertain as to how he should return volley. He’s been away from society too long, and while it soon becomes clear Henry is hiding from something, it mostly comes across that he does not understand basic human behavior. When she suggests dinner, he reacts as if she’s explained the concept of eating to him.
A light shines on Henry’s origins when he’s taken at gunpoint by Clay (Orlando Jones). The interloper wants revenge for the death of his own brother, thanks to faulty orders given by the SEALS Henry headed in combat long ago. The film’s clearly got an interest in order, justice, fairness and authority figures, since Henry acknowledges he made a mistake and was unfit for leadership. Also, because the film’s meal ticket enters the film wearing a fake Canadian Mountie outfit, projecting false authority.
That would be Mr. Van Damme himself as Xander. JCVD struts into the movie with spiky blond highlights and a graceful physicality that suggests a dancer’s gait, not the toughie he’s always battled onscreen. He leads a gang to King’s Island to procure a massive shipment of drugs left underwater, but first they’ll have to evacuate the island by evacuating everyone out of their own bodies. Van Damme’s Xander seems to really enjoy that part of the job.
Likely because of Mr. Van Damme’s commitments (he’s no longer a “star,” but he remains prolific in the direct-to-DVD world), there’s the sense that you’re watching two totally unrelated movies, and that the actors are all on completely different sets. The first finds the conflict between Henry and Clay escalating as Clay not only gives a longwinded explanation for his need for revenge but also stalls when it is time to pull the trigger. The interplay between Scott and Jones is deadly dull, and neither character has much of a compelling backstory for these actors to create. Ultimately, these two are going to have to band together if they want to survive the oncoming Van Dammage.
The second, and more rewarding film, finds Xander and his goons locking down the island. It’s pretty basic: there isn’t much that needs to be set up, but it’s clear that director Peter Hyams has a greater investment in this subplot than he does the central conflict between Henry and Clay. Xander himself is a hoot: he’s a vegan who hates guns because they’re not “green,” and Van Damme gets a chance to chew into some hilarious monologues about ducks and other not-at-all-relevant topics. Every time the movie switches to the dramatic conflict of the opposing subplot, you groan. Van Damme’s an arresting presence in his old age: his chest is puffed out as if to carry a haggard body, and his eyes have the seen-it-all boredom that comes from beating up too many people. His performance is a wonder, showcasing a man who has never found his physical equal, and how amuses himself by telling stories that ultimately mock opponents. One scene has him threatening Henry while holding a weapon to a hostage’s neck, while also calmly smiling and sipping coffee. Combined with his pointy hair, he’s less sadistic and more mischievous. He may have not had many opportunities to do so, but among his generation, no other action star could wink at the audience quite as well.
Hyams seems to have borrowed a few tools from his son John’s repertoire. John Hyams last essayed Van Damme’s haunted Kurtz-alike in the superb “Universal Soldier: Day Of Reckoning,” and clearly Van Damme feels comfortable with both directors (Peter worked as the DP for John’s “Universal Soldier: Regeneration”). The emphasis on furious fight choreography from John’s films remains here, and characters frequently, and clearly, toss each other into glass, countertops and trees. Most of the hand-to-hand is quite good, hampered only by the fact that none of the characters are meant to be martial artists. Given that the set-ups are fairly pedestrian, there’s nothing altogether inventive about the fisticuffs either, just a generic workmanlike approach, but the physical performers and generously hands-off editing allow for an emphasis on physical damage and bodies in motion. Only a late film scuffle in a tree carries the charge of some of Van Damme’s earlier, more acrobatic work.
Of course, sequences like that only make one question why this film is so ashamed to be an action picture. Mr. Everett Scott’s stunt double appears to be more than game for getting beaten, bruised, and displaying spectacular flips. But given the actor’s limited charisma (his default dramatic expression is “verge of tears”), why not just hire the stunt double instead and axe the tortured backstory? The studios want a raft of Tobey Maguires and Andrew Garfields to unleash as action heroes, so these fringe action stars need to support each other. With Everett Scott, the film’s only diverting, mostly forgettable. But with Scott Adkins, Michael Jai White, or any number of current action performers, it could have been great. [C]